The issue: “How can we encourage more women to work in the North’s Digital Sector and what do we need to do to achieve this?”
As part of BQ’s Northern Creative and Digital talent campaign we are launching a series of live debates to inform, engage and make the most of the skills and talents across the North of England. One of the major issues is how few women there are in the sector so we brought together experts in the field to ask what they thought the issues were and what could be done to address them.
Key themes to emerge included the need to better connect industry to education to understand the opportunities within the sector; to educate the educators so they can give much better careers advice; engage young people and their influencers, most notably parents, to showcase what well-paid, varied roles are available in the sector; increase awareness, share best practice and above all, make it fun.
In the chair, Caroline Theobald set the scene saying the digital and creative sector was worth £84.5bn to the UK in 2014 which is 5.2% of the economy yet 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are struggling to fill their roles.
Rob Earnshaw, director, Digital City opened the debate: “What I have found from each region is that there are unbelievable pockets of energy and different programmes and events, trying to promote the same thing – retaining quality talent. I thought, why are we not speaking and aligning our thinking? Hence the campaign. The fact that Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Tech North and BQ are driving this campaign forward is incredibly important and it will be a success.
“Five years ago 17% of the tech sector were female and that’s now gone down to 10% so why is that? It is a big debate going on across the country so I want to see how we can improve the situation in the North of England.”
First to introduce themselves and respond was Kate Baucherel, owner, Galia Digital, based in Newcastle. “After I graduated I was lucky enough to spend the year working in the US for an IBM business partner which was an extraordinary experience and inspired my love of tech. In 2010 I formed my own digital start up, I have had three businesses, one running, one has been sold. I have spent the last couple of years going to Austin and there are a few things I have observed to put into place. There is a strong digital creative culture and people are willing to take risks. There is also a noticeable effort by people to bring women forward to battle the lack of confidence and among minorities there is a movement to use digital skills as a way to bringing forward aspiration.”
Paul Lancaster, Plan Digital UK, started his own business five months ago after 10 years of helping others set up. He said in the next few years the word tech will be redundant because everything will be digital.
Cotilda Makhumula, fashion designer, owner of Cotilda.com was encouraged to start her own business through mentoring and she said this was important for her as while she was creative she had no experience of business.
Jason Leggett, project director, Creative Fuse North East is working with all five universities and supporting the new University Technical College (UTC) in Newcastle. He said a key point is to challenge some of the statistics. What is behind them? Have they captured the nuances of the region?”
Charlotte Thornton, marketing manager, Orange Bus, Newcastle said: “I didn’t know much about digital at 18 and I graduated in History of Art. Digital is so inclusive – you can be anyone with any kind of skillset and find a job in digital – fashion tech, health tech etc.”
Joanne Wake, managing director RAW Digital Training in Stockton was highly commended in the Women in IT awards for businesswoman of the year and one of only three businesses in the North East in the digital leaders 100 companies. She has also been shortlisted for innovator of the year for the Women in IT awards 2017 and use of special innovation at the North East business awards.
“Innovation isn’t easy, you’re creating something that the market hasn’t got and you spend a lot of time creating it before being paid, “I am a 32-year-old mother of an 8-year-old and think there is a lot of emphasis on education up to 21 but there is a massive gap for the 16-29 year olds.”
Kirsty Styles, newly appointed head of talent & skills, Tech North, trained as a journalist, struggled to get a job so went to an app development company, spent five years looking at tech industry in London and Tech City and what it did well and didn’t do well. “There was an issue of not being able to skill up local people and I am really interested in why we can’t. Huge companies are struggling with gender diversity and we need to look at how we can tackle that.”
Dominic Coleman, policy advisor, Digital Skills, DCMS said less than 20% of women are in senior IT roles and even less in senior exec roles. “We held a round table event in March on International Women’s Day and we have the attention of the ministers – it is high on their agenda. We want to strengthen digital talent up North – this event tries to marry these together. Maybe we have been guilty of looking at the two issues in isolation.”
Rosie Brent, owner, Rosie Brent, Newcastle has a background in manufacturing and IT. “We talk about the digital sector and no-one really knows what it is,” she said. “I have no clue how to improve something I cannot define. It is a very broad topic - the bit I like is engineering, manufacturing and science. I want women to learn how to program robots. On production lines I spoke to young feminists who would like to do that – they do not see the barriers and it is very odd speaking to 17 year olds who don’t see there is a problem. That tells me there is an educational issue.”
Sara Calgie, founder of The Crafty Fox in Tees Valley goes into schools, pre-schools, private events and teaches art and craft skills, but feels it should be recognised with certificates. “The problem is there isn’t any accreditation for the children before they get to five years old so if they don’t get arty and don’t get ‘clarty’ early they don’t want to know when they get to five. It leads to creativity as they get older for everything. As Einstein said: ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun’.”
Katherine Pearson, managing director, Flo Culture in Newcastle, said: “The first thing I do is appoint a goodly mix of women to my boards and team – not because I have a policy tickbox but because I understand the benefits it brings. It is an extremely male-dominated sector and to create jobs we need to ensure that the culture, belief systems and the attitude that surround the venture capital or investment system is conducive to inviting lots of different people in to employment.”
Michaela Reaney, director, Gradvert works with employers to attract young talent plus ongoing training and development, and with universities to develop their curriculum and help young people get the employability skills. “There is a lot of emphasis around start up which is great but how do we help them survive, become sustainable and grow?” she said. “Also succession planning. It is sad to hear the number of girls going into tech is reducing and I am shocked by how few are at the top.”
Stuart Clarke, director, Media Yorkshire, co-founded the Leeds digital festival and held 56 events in 28 venues with around 6,000 attendees. Three events were specifically to encourage girls into tech, and he worked with the WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) campaign. “How do we link these disparate initiatives, do more to encourage schoolgirls, graduates and women returning from having children - how do we get this fantastic talent into the sector?”
Jim Mawdsley, CEO Digital Union, said it was launching a creative digital strategy for the North East and a business growth pipeline to help start up companies grow. “How do we educate the educators at all levels about the sector?” he said.
“If Jonny or Jane comes and wants to be a data analyst parents have no idea what that is. If they say they want to be a process engineer at Nissan they understand it is working with cars. It is a real challenge – there is such a talent shortage yet there are 2,000 vacancies in this region alone. We need to work with the education sector so they understand our sector.”
Helen Baker, senior manager, Accenture, said the company employed 1,300 people and needs a diverse workforce to mirror its customers. “We are very interested in employing as many women as possible. We get involved in running women specific assessment centres, and an annual event at the Sage for girls in STEM. I fell into IT and would like to think my children would get better support than me to understand what the opportunities are in digital. It is not just coding, there is a lot of variety. What support can we give to women to retrain in a sector which is diverse and fun to work in?”
Joanne Wake said: “It is about how to digitise every company, enhance what they do, find new ways of working and it is a big issue. Some of the biggest increase in apprenticeships has seen apprentices going into companies as a social media expert. If they go into the digital sector they have a lot of people around who can show them what to do but in a traditional sector like oil and gas, a company is forward thinking because they want that young person but they end up being the only one with those skills and need support from outside.”
Kate Baucherel – “Digital will become a basic skill like English, science and maths. We need to look at the creative sector, where there are digital skills to be used to be an effective creative person and also look at technical where there are very heavy technical skills needed for a big business. The last thing we need is to sit in the middle and encourage lots of people to build websites for other people – that is a rat race.”
Dominic Coleman – DCMS use the framework Basic, Workforce and Advance. “Basic skills is what everyone needs in their daily life but 12.6m people are not thinking digital. They are not booking things online, they are not in the digital mindset. We need to get people engaged. Workforce is to make sure they have the skills as 90% will be digital in 2023 and then the advance level is what we need to drive in the creative industries.”
Rosie Brent “I would challenge that women are under-represented. I fell into IT as a single parent I needed a good job with a good salary. I went to Weston helicopters for a programmers job and had no background whatsoever apart from my dad telling me ever since I was about four that computers were the future and that I had to learn to be a programmer. I thought it sounded boring but we need to tell people that actually it is fun. I loved working in IT. It was the most fun I had in my life. I got the opportunity to travel the world, walk through complex manufacturing processes and understand how every single part of the business works.”
Jason Leggett –“ I saw Gerard Grech doing a piece on the recent tech city study. He looked at the breakdown of employees in the digital sector and the largest proportion of employment is not in specialist skills like coders, but transformers – those people in non-digital businesses. It is the fastest growing sector and becoming the norm. It is not necessarily about encouraging women to enter the digital sector but actually about the core skills they can learn at an early age, get excited by and see it as an enabler to develop a really successful career. There is a clear message here to demonstrate to parents that these are core skills children will require in the future.”
Helen Baker – “Everyone at Accenture has charity days which we use to spend a lot of time going into schools running hackathons to help them solve IT problems. So if a school needs a new website we will work with the children to address that problem – so they are developing something. We run coding clubs, teaching students in schools and universities. We have worked with WISE to develop toolkits to encourage girls to learn STEM subjects.
We run the event at Sage - 2,000 girls from schools will do hackathon activities and understand the different tech roles they can get into across the STEM subjects. We are looking to to see how we can do this throughout the year. We also do a lot of targeted recruitment around female candidates.
We are going to run a female only assessment centre because some women lack confidence in a male-dominated environment. I don’t know how many meetings I have had when I have been the only woman, so we need to encourage them to come in and not retreat to their slightly less confident selves. We are always looking at ways to encourage girls into the workforce because if we don’t, we don’t have a workforce.”
Michaela Reaney “ I am shocked - are we really at the stage where we have to have female only assessement centres as a way to encourage women to be confident enough to be successful in their future career? As someone who designs and runs assessment centres on a daily basis I can categorically say that is not something I can get behind because quite frankly it is the fundamental issue as to why those women are feeling that they can’t compete when they are in an environment with men.
Why are we not thinking about well-rounded characters who are not just technically very good but also have the capability to go into a professional environment and become a manager or leader of the future and actually build their confidence from school age?
We have so many employers coming to us struggling to find young people with the right skills for their business. They are maybe technically very good but not equipped with the capability to come into the professional environment and prosper. Raise aspirations and educate them on the opportunities”.
Helen Baker responded, “I accept the point but there are a lot of female candidates with a lack of confidence. If we can try it and it brings some really great people, we can support them through the working environment”.
Katherine Pearson “It goes back to the culture of the organisation. It is a very male dominated environment – particular attitudes and behaviours which are not conducive to people who are less confident. So how do we tackle that? Are we putting people to the side or are we really challenging?”
Rosie Brent – “We need to avoid positive discrimination because it makes it worse being a woman. You are only there because you are a girl to tick the box. It will be thrown at those who come through female assessment centres. We need to encourage open recruitment and make sure the digital sector reflects that the North is full of great talented, candidates.”
Kate Baucherel – “I went to an all-girls school which gave me extraordinary opportunities and no competition so it came as a shock to me when I went to work and there was a gents toilet, a ladies toilet and a board toilet which told me women would get on the board. I have stood in front of venture capitalists and been asked if I had plans to strengthen the board (in other words can you get a man on there) and I have been looked up and down and asked by a business what could you do for us?”
“The onus should not always be on the women,” said Charlotte Thornton, “If you really want to stand out you have to act like men – you have to swear, shout - so should they not change their attitude? Women like personable people if we are not feeling comfortable, then perhaps it is the men who have to change.”
Kirsty Styles said her sister worked in a senior position at an FE College and there were employers who could not tell them what jobs were in the digital sector and not enough students getting careers advice and work experience.
“They don’t know where they are going to get jobs, they don’t know digital jobs exist - a careers person who can’t advise a computer science student what to do. The challenge is between industry, parents and educators. Start-ups don’t necessarily have time to go into colleges, but perhaps they should make time as it is their future workforce.”
For Jason Leggett the introduction of UTCs could have a big impact, taking the best of vocational education along with academic. “What you are trying to do is create an environment which is more conducive to the workplace so that you are asking kids of 14 to start at nine and finish at five,” he said.
“It is about exploring new ways of education to tackle the issue of aspiration and industry insight.”
Kirsty Styles responded that a UTC had closed in Hackney after two years but Jason Leggett said this was part of the painful process of change.
Jim Mawdsley: “It is a shame Hackney closed but what I have learned is that certain FE colleges are now more open and we can advise them on their curriculum on an annual basis. Universities are different and I am told they can’t change that easily. The point about UTCs is that if we don’t start now we will never change them. It is a long process but we have to start somewhere.”
Getting candidates from a broad background is key to bridging the talent gap says Joanne Wake who has had those Not in Education Employment or Training involved in digital bootcamps alongside people who had just completed their studies.
“We train people on a digital bus for eight days on all different subjects,” she said. “You have developers at one end and early introducers at the other. Some have not left bed for two years others just completed their law degree – that’s the appeal. We were overrun from a recruitment point of view with some very clever people. In this region 70% of vacancies are in the digital sector yet 65% of businesesses struggle to recruit so there is a huge issue – a crisis.” She said the work experience proved transformational with many getting a traineeship, apprenticeship or job on completion of the programme – “the little bit of digital training has given them a bit of pizzazz.”
Charlotte Thornton said: “ I asked 17 girls at our Newcastle HQ what they thought about getting more women into the sector and they all said the barrier was awareness. It was all about girls not knowing the jobs are there They all think it is developers – programmers, science, maths skills and don’t realise there are so many different roles available.”
Having female role models is key and is one of the things the WISE campaign does well said Stuart Clarke who described the impact seven women working in digital had at one of his events.b “We had a coder, someone from a digital marketing agency, a lawyer who works with tech companies, a real good mix, where teenagers could talk to them about the roles available.”
“It is a great sector to be in if you have the right skills, and well paid. There were six girl guides and we asked them what they wanted to be. One little girl wanted to be a hairdresser but by the end of the two hours she said she wanted to design submarines having spoken to my daughter who works in that field. We need to do more of it.”
Getting role models in front of girls at an early age was important said Sara Calgie: “When teaching anything to anyone it has to be within their frame of reference, relevant and meaningful to them. Children having access to people who are doing it and can see what they’re like and how it fits into the world is crucially important. If it is not in their realm it is not on their tick list.
Cotilda Makhumula added: “Before I finished my Masters I had someone coming to tell me about business – I had the creative side but knew nothing about business side. So being part of the Launchpad helped me network with other people in the same position. Having mentors and people who have done it before can help advise you and prevent you making costly mistakes.”
Where graduates end up was another issue which needs exploring says Jason Leggett. He pointed to Teesside and Sunderland universities which recruit mainly from the local market and most stay after graduating – both are strong in digital but “something is not working. There is still a potential 2,000 job opportunities yet we have graduates with the skills and a good degree working in Tesco.”
Dominic Coleman pointed out despite 70% of those in Higher Education being women only 25% doing computer science are female. Part of that is that computer science grads are not getting into decent jobs when they graduate. It has been suggested there could be digital charter for women which he said was “quite depressing” that you should need one in such a new industry.
“There is a big gap between what is coming out of education and what the employer is looking for in terms of behaviours and skills,” said Michaela Reaney, “Too often employers are going into schools and opening up opportunities but there is only so much of that going on and it tends to be the bigger companies who can afford the time to do that so people aren’t seeing the opportunities of start ups and SMEs, where they could actually have a much more accelerated career path.”
Joanne Wake has a structured internship programme despite being a small business. She usually has three interns at a time, a day a week for 12 weeks “They are bright intelligent, hungry and I mean hungry. They have left uni with traditional skills in journalism, marketing or whatever else which cannot be faulted but in the fast moving world there isn’t a role for them and because they haven’t got experience no-one will take them on. We have loads of thank you cards, chocolates and it makes you quite emotional because they have usually been employed into a full time job and they are getting that job because of 12 days with us. It is a lot of effort, but I feel there should be something more formal to help bridge that gap.”
Jim Mawdsley said: “It is unbelievable how few companies are prepared to take on apprentices and guide them through. We are working with Teesside Uni on a degree apprenticeship programme which employers think is exciting but whether they will take one on is another matter.”
The theme of Mentorship and inspiring kept coming up in the debate and Rob Earnshaw asked what the North can do collectively to help this – companies giving work experience, a mentor programme, showcase and celebrate exciting female entrepreneurs?
Paul Lancaster said Martha Lane Fox seems to be the only role model and we need a few more. “Let’s have them in the region. When she set up lastminute.com she thought this was the answer to everything and would change the world, 20 years later it hasn’t changed. She was frustrated at the slow rate of progress so she was saying we need more female only interventions – it maybe controversial but perhaps it is needed to speed things up.”
Things had changed in terms of skills required but the system hasn’t changed with it said Rosie Brent. “We have this theory that to be a coder you have to be a maths whizz. I am a coder but can’t do the maths on Countdown. We need to demystify that and change the way composite graduates are being created through schools. One of the things women don’t get taught is skills on negotiating a career path.
My dad taught me how to negotiate a pay rise because nobody teaches anybody how to do that – so I was always seen as masculine in my environment because I was quite assertive in saying I was worth what I was being paid. There is another range of skills alongside digital to create success. Identifying key people succeeding in certain aspects is the way to look at mentoring because the right mentor isn’t necessarily the right mentor long term.”
Joanne Wake agreed and believes a good way to support growth is to create an add-on for degrees to be delivered by industry. She believes young people would go for it as it would massively enhance their employment opportunities.
Michaela Reaney said: “We take employers into unis and then design curriculum, in small parts, with Northumbria and Newcastle – it is happening elsewhere and there are work-based learning programmes. One of the challenges for programme leaders in university is that they have a huge responsibility on them and their main focus is on educating and bringing people out with a 2:1 or a First, it is not about turning out people capable of getting a job.”
Stuart Clarke agreed not enough was being done to connect students with employers and showing them what fantastic careers are available in cities like Leeds and a number of events are planned for next year to take students to where the employers are. “Don’t wait until they are three weeks away from graduating – get them in the first, second and third years,” he said.
Bringing the debate back to the original question Rob Earnshaw said focusing on women was not about being politically correct it is because “we don’t have enough people entering the sector to meet the talent need for our growing businesses. We are in a unique space in the North East – the digital sector is the fastest growing in the UK, the NE is the fastest growing region in the UK and the UK before Brexit was the fastest growing country in the developed world, so it is very exciting.
“I believe if we encourage half our population to enter the sector, that is a quicker win than getting more boys involved. It is not about positive discrimination it is about changing culture – a gender neutral place where women can succeed, great for both sexes. If we get more girls to sign up more boys will follow. It is about sharing best practice across the North and everyone doing pockets of greatness. We just need to speak to each other. We are seen as the North and have to collaborate as such.”
Kirsty Styles said there was a danger of preaching to the converted. She said sexist jokes, banter and attitudes put people off and things had to change. She quoted a book by Iris Bohnet, What Works actively addressing issues, such as taking identifers off when looking at cvs, review job descriptions to ensure they are gender neutral as well as campaigns such as pink stinks, let toys be toys and calling people out on unacceptable comments and behaviour.
Katherine Pearson said it was a collective responsibility to point out what the problems are rather than pretending they are not there and taking action. As a small company she said it would be easier to offer opportunities to get work experience if there was a formal structure rather than doing it adhoc.
For Sara Calgie part of the answer is engaging people of all ages. People who want to explore something new or change direction. “I think there are loads of people who are highly skilled and generational programmes lend themselves to this because young people can teach older people, teenagers can teach younger children – then it will reach people like me who were poorly skilled and with no tech knowledge. In my first business I left all the tech with my brother as he was a whizz but when I started this business I knew it wouldn’t succeed unless I could communicate with more people quickly, so I went to get mentors. Find the ones you gel with and you keep in touch with them and they become brand advocates. There is a lot of help but people don’t know about it.”
Jim Mawdsley said: “There is an appetite for work-based projects in schools and we have identified that the younger the people we can bring in from the companies then the more the children will identify with them. If it encourages more girls and young women to come into tech by having young women talk to them then if that’s an advantage then why not – the guys could be inspired as well.”
Jason Leggett said the challenge is to grow the sector as best we can within limited budgets and organisations should ask their members’ view. He said: “Maybe there is a way Digital Union can explore a woman’s chapter across the North. Celebrate diversity and spread the word, to get them more active.”
Kate Baucherel said the North East Institute of Directors ‘women on board’ group was set up to encourage those taking part to become non exec directors which could be adapted for other initiatives. “If you can find a specific purpose for the women rather just network and make it very positive, then you may have a real winning formula.”
The debate was closed by BQ managing director Bryan Hoare who said the campaign would keep the momentum generated by the event going with a further seven debates planned across the North and possibly a final one in Westminster, all focused on growing the skills and talents in the sector